Charles Philippe Leblond was born in Lille, France, in 1910 and received his MD from the University of Paris in 1934. He came to McGill after fleeing the Second World War and stayed for the rest of his career. In the words of the Journal of Anatomy, he was “a giant in the field of cell and tissue biology.” His personal qualities and the many accomplishments in the course of his exceptionally long career inspire those who knew him. In 2004, at an international conference, he delivered what proved to be his last public lecture, still displaying his trademark wit. He had brought his presentation on a USB stick and joked to the crowd, “a month ago I thought Power Point was a tool for sharpening pencils.” He was then 94.
He is described by family members as “uncompromising,” “dedicated” and “precise.” Philippe Leblond, BEng’60, the oldest of Leblond’s children, says “in his lab, there was one day a year that everyone hated. He forced everybody to empty their closets and their drawers onto the floor and then put everything back into place.”
Leblond’s dedication and precision served him well. During the early stages of his career, he pioneered the use of autoradiography, a procedure that permits the observation of changes in the cells of living organisms. He struggled with several aspects of this procedure, notably, the short half-life of the radioactive isotopes. Gertrude Sternschuss (to whom Leblond was married for 64 years) would inject iodine isotopes into rats and Leblond would hurry to his lab to quickly dissect them. But the isotopes in the target specimens typically decayed within 25 minutes, leaving Leblond with little or nothing to observe.
Leblond’s first truly successful applications of autoradiography were achieved at McGill during the 1940s. Philippe, then just a boy, remembers giving a helping hand. “He had this Geiger counter. It was this huge box, with vacuum tubes in it. At night we had to do counts of the background radioactivity. I’d have to sit there as this thing went, one, two, three…”
These experiments were carried out in the Strathcona Building, at that time the headquarters of the Faculty of Medicine, the Osler Library and a museum. Philippe describes how he would sometimes take a break from the Geiger counter and wander around marveling at the museum’s eclectic holdings, which included an Inuit totem pole and the fetuses of Siamese twins in formaldehyde.
It was only after successfully using markers with a longer half-life and increasing the resolution of autoradiography that Leblond was able to achieve his breakthrough results. What he found was proof of the rapid turnover of cells. “The cells of the small intestine, for example, were reported to be replaced every two days – a concept originally dismissed by critics as ‘too silly for words.’”* Cell turnover is now, of course, a fundamental concept in biology.
Leblond was also an exceptional and truly unique teacher. Former students remember his multi-colour chalk drawings, rendered a half hour before class to illustrate his lectures in histology. His attention to detail was just as acute in the lecture hall as the lab. “When he was preparing a lecture he used to spend a lot of time with my mother going over each slide,” recalls Marie-Pascale Leblond, his daughter. “Because he had an accent, he wanted to pronounce things perfectly.” Everyone who met him also speaks of his personal trademark – his love of purple –inspired by the periodic acid-Schiff stain, which influenced his wardrobe and home furnishings.
Despite his work ethic, by no means was Leblond perpetually cloistered in a lab, office or lecture hall. He also believed in an active social life and taking breaks from McGill. Grand-daughter Sabrina Leblond-Murphy fondly recalls Leblond’s country house, Val Mauve, named, of course, for Leblond’s favourite colour. “In the city he was always dressed immaculately in a perfect suit,” Sabrina says. “When he was in the country, he allowed himself to wear jeans. He would put on his Wellingtons and go out.” At Val Mauve he loved to feed the ducks. He even built a shelter for them.
After his wife Gertrude passed away, Leblond re-married. Both bride and groom were 91.
Philippe, Marie-Pascale and Sabrina have inherited some of Leblond’s traits while each finding a unique career path. Philippe trained as an engineer at McGill and worked in the field for several decades before eventually turning to his current field, Feldenkrais, which he describes as a “systems engineer’s perspective on neuro-muscular dysfunction.” Marie-Pascale teaches biology at the Collège de Rosement, not surprisingly an occupation that her father approved of and for which he gave her valuable advice along the way.
Sabrina is currently an MDCM student in the very same faculty to which her grandfather dedicated over half his life. But the road to McGill was far from smooth. In July 2008, just two months before she was scheduled to write the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), she was diagnosed with leukemia. It wasn’t until June 2010 that she was well enough to resume her MCAT studies and apply to medical school. The experience of illness is one she says will definitely shape how she will practice medicine.
Each family member gives a description of Leblond. “He had the highest levels of integrity,” Philippe says. “He never sacrificed his values for something he had to do.” Marie-Pascale calls her father “disciplined, determined and uncompromising on the quality of the work he did.” Sabrina has the final word. “What I’ve taken from him is this: if you don’t know the answer to something, say so. Then go out and find the answer.”
* From an obituary by Gary Bennett, Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, McGill University and Antonio Haddad, Departamento de Biologia Celular, University of Sao Paulo